It‘s a long haul from the cradle to the grave. There’s much to learn, no end of mistakes to make, endless twists in the road and constant change. We recall the youthful, energetic, forays designed to bring in the Kingdom overnight. The world had fewer shades of grey then; the solutions were obvious; the possibilities endless.
Provided you were really “on fire” anything could happen. But the changes do come to us. Imperceptibly. Surely. Profoundly. It is not a loss of enthusiasm or trust or dedication. Just a different way of looking at the world. We see things in a different way after a while on the road. Here’s a sampling:
- We develop a concern for the essence of ministry rather than the technology
Sooner or later the “how to”‘s of ministry are overshadowed by reflections on what ministry really is, its essence, its fundamental nature. Our book shops are flooded with titles exploring the best technology to produce good outcomes. Now there is nothing terribly amiss here. It is simply that the day dawns when the interest in managing ministry gives way to pondering much more deeply the purposes of God in His world.
There is the realisation that finding the formulae for successful pastoral performance is no more than flirting with the fringes of the reality of God. Ministry is not pulling certain levers in certain ways to achieve certain ends. It is much more a dependence on God to do His work in His way without necessarily knowing too much about what that may be.
- We are overcome with the magnitude of God’s grace.
The journey into the reality of God introduces us to the extraordinary poverty of our own being. The self assurance of an earlier day is displaced by a deepening awareness of the generous work of the Holy Spirit within us. We realise what an awful risk the Lord took in calling us into the service of His Kingdom.
We are only ever one step away from letting the cause down. Where once we thought we had it all together, we bump into the daily frailties which seem to wait for us at each turn of the way. And since we understand better what we really are made of, we find ourselves becoming much more accepting of the foibles of others. The irritation of another day is supplanted by an unexpected tolerance and patience which may even surprise us at times.
- We no longer have to prove anything to anybody
While it may be a touch hard to admit to it, the truth is that most of us have expended energy at one time or another in trying to prove ourselves to the world at large. Perhaps it was an enthusiastic ego (or may be an insecure one) which drove us to foolish competition, sanctified one-up-man-ship and all the antics which go with trying to establish our worth to our people and the world at large.
There were the mindless power games and strategies which we designed to bring us to the attention of others. Mercifully the day arrives when the joyful release occurs. We are just glad to be ourselves. It’s just too bad when we fail to live up to the all those expectations of others; we will not lose any more sleep. If others carve in our territory that’s fine too. Those power games are happily consigned to oblivion. If the wheel falls off, so be it. There’s a spare anyway.
- The quest for meaning becomes more intense
There comes a point when we finally grasp that we are mortal. Such a discovery might take half a lifetime but when it hits, the consequences are comprehensive. It is unsettling; we no longer see the need or the point of putting up with routines which lack meaning, or drive us around the bend with no relief in sight.
When we acknowledge that we have a limited supply of days available to us (not said morbidly), we are not going to squander them on lesser projects or unproductive exercises. We become a little more discerning about the use of time and energy. We are much more inclined to the view that if something is worth doing, we had better do it sooner than later.
Further, we become very aware that some of our dreams are not going to be fulfilled. That insight can hurt. We are hit with the truth that one life is not long enough to do everything. It is time for priorities to be set.
- We sense an increasing need for personal space
Most of us used to be able to run with the hares and hunt with the hounds. Not any more. The hares lack direction and the hounds bark too much. Our system does not dive into a free fall when we are alone any more. In fact we start to look forward to the quiet moments.
The soul hungers for peace and space. Even the bouncing extraverts start to savour the fruits of reflection and contemplation. There is an unexpected connection with the divine. It is serendipitous, enriching, energising, life giving.
But it is not a retreat into some sanctified, introspective cave. Not at all. It is an encountering with the otherness of God which translates into a renewed encountering with His world. It is just that we have stumbled onto the strength which can only be found in retreat, not in the fast lane no matter how exciting that may be.
- We derive greater comfort from lesser outcomes
The world of performance takes a glorious tumble. Since there is nothing to prove any more, we can function without measuring our worth by the secular benchmarks of numbers, finance, impact, size of neon lights (or whatever the church equivalent of that may be). Since Jesus said He would build His church and the gates of hell would not prevail against it, we are far more attentive to the shaping of that environment where growth can occur.
A slavish addiction to programs is moderated by a deeper concern for community. We want our churches to be communities where we can be trusted to care for the searchers, the uncertain, the tentative and the hopeless. We long for that communal vulnerability where the scars are obvious, the pain tangible and the masks shredded. We realise the bonding which is the peculiar result of being ordinary, honest and open. We discover that unique camaraderie generated by shared failures.
If the Lord chooses to bless the work, that is fine. If not and our hearts are right and the way tough, we will still be found faithful. By all means pull out your statistics and your calculator if you want to but you won’t find our measure that way. We are into the long haul here and not everyone manages to stay that long, especially if the attendance figures or the budgets don’t add up.
- We are happy to work away in the wings
Once upon a time, we did our best to be noticed. When the blood and tears were invested, we were quite happy to enjoy the kudos which came with that.
But it is not quite the same now. When we get up to preach, we know deeply that this is a holy task and hungry people are waiting for a word to keep them on the right side of sanity and hope. We dare not fail them. The pulpit is not the place for the careless, or the show pony, or the busy pastor who has not had the time to spend in the quietness with God.
Moreover, it is not a threat to move from centre stage and let others shoulder more of the responsibilities. As they receive affirmation for this we are delighted and we will commend them as a matter of course (even if it is not done quite the way we had planned). There is a new freedom being out of the gaze of everybody.
- We are more at home with the greys of life
There was a time when the issues of life, ministry and theology were clear and we were irritated by those who could always wrest another angle which unhelpfully tilted our own perception. It seemed that there was something powerfully wrong when difficult matters lingered because there was no clear way forward. But they do not bother us too much now.
Life is like that. We have our bottom lines which are not up for grabs but we know from sometimes bitter experience that are a legion of issues which defy a black and white treatment. We don’t mind exploring them, acknowledging the paradoxes and conundrums which they present but we will no longer go into battle to protect our position.
We can cope with the tension of the unresolved big deal controversies realising that the further we go, the more time we spend with that glass through which we can only see darkly at the best of times. Perhaps the greatest risk is the testing of our tolerance by those who claim to have a chapter and verse for every occasion or spiritual penetrine to unstick every jammed discussion.
- We recognise the mystery of the journey
All of us ponder a time when the discovery of God’s guidance seemed to be much less complicated than it is now. As we move on down the track, the choices appear more complex, the implications more comprehensive and the sheer difficulty of making significant mid course and mid life alterations quite terrifying. We are more alert to the many networks, relationships and connections which can be so dramatically varied for the rest of our days simply be trying to be sensitive to the wind of the Spirit.
While so many other aspects of our lives seem to be just that little more manageable, the problems of knowing where and how we should spend our days can become, if not overwhelming, at least a little confusing. A serious illness or operation can throw life out of gear without a hint of a warning.
Yet, there is still the overriding sense that God is not too far away, that it is still finally His adventure and that He hangs around all the major intersections of our lives keeping an eye open for us, not beyond giving us a nudge or a shove as the case may be when we might need it.
10, We fall in love with Jesus in a fresh way
Where we used to range over a huge landscape of theological and ministry way points, there comes an abiding fascination with Jesus. It is not that we lose the range of our interests; it is that He moves into our whole psyche and captures our imagination in ways that are so profoundly unexpected.
We sense Him approaching us, not so much as the Lord of creation, or even the Lord of the Church, but as the elder Brother. From deep within our being we find ourselves longing to know more about Him.
We read the Gospels with fresh wonderment, seeing so much our of ourselves in the bumbling slowness and limited understanding of the disciples. As we enter each day we expect the water of our circumstances will be turned into wine, that our crippling feebleness to deal with those trying situations will be transformed into wisdom, energy and shouts of deliverance. He is there. Just there. The smile of the divine calls us onto greater and more daring feats knowing that He loves us and that life is not to be taken too seriously after all.
The Kingdom is His, not ours, so that if it all seems beyond us then the too hard basket is His anyway. We just need to consign a little more into it than we used to. And that rekindled love give us a open heart to all who suffer, or battle with life, or who seem to be victims of an unkind world. We want to be there for them to make a difference.
Make no mistake about it, these are some of the changes which come to us. Perhaps they are God’s special gifts to us, a growing bundle of awareness which frees us up to enjoy Him, to delight in the pilgrimage, to see Him in a thousand ways which had previously escaped us, to endure the dark night of the soul with all its questions without falling in a heap.
We tumble into the joy of realising that He enjoys our company as much as we do His. Now that is worth discovering. Keep the changes coming!
Rev. John Simpson